Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Northern Ireland's Long Good Friday

Northern Ireland power sharing began yesterday. Arch-loyalist and Democratic Union Party leader Ian Paisley was sworn in as Northern Ireland’s first minister yesterday with Sinn Fein’s deputy Martin McGuinness appointed as Paisley deputy (The deputy role did not suit the gravitas of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams). Paisley and McGuinness now serve together in a compulsory coalition of local government that devolves some powers from London to Belfast. Tuesday’s ceremony at Belfast’s imposing Stormont Castle was witnessed by the British and Irish prime ministers, both of whom have their own agendas and needs from the occasion. But the day belongs to the North and was a crucial landmark along the long road to peace in Northern Ireland. "It's a sad day for the innocent victims of the trouble we have had, yet it is a special day because we are making a new beginning," said Paisley. "And I believe we are starting on a road that will bring us back to peace."

While Paisley was mapping out the road to peace, the Belfast Telegraph described the ceremony as the “last major set piece of the peace process”. The hard work of governing the province begins now. Both Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein are keen to hit the ground running and manage what is rapidly becoming a booming economy. The optimism in the economy is shared by the construction industry. UK house prices rose in March after recent falls and the recovery was led by Northern Ireland. There the big rise in prices was attributed to three factors: a rise in foreign workers; investors still keen on property ahead of pensions and shortage of housing stock leading to panic purchasers.

The set-up of the assembly is likely to be one of the last hurrahs of Tony Blair who has signalled he will quit 10 Downing St sometime in the next month. Blair’s reputation was badly sullied by the Iraq debacle but the official ending of Northern Ireland's 30 year war is likely to be seen as his greatest success. Blair himself has admitted he has staked much on the settlement. When asked whether it was Northern Ireland was his swansong, he told an interviewer “I think if I look at the ratio of time spent, I mean, this must have taken as much intensive amounts of my time as anything I have dealt with," he said during an interview.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was one of Blair’s earliest initiatives in office. He was in the job for less than a year when the assembly was established under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The agreement signed on 10 April 1998 was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, in referenda held simultaneously six weeks later on 22 May.

The agreement was also an early success for Blair’s Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern. Ahearn is also approaching his ten year anniversary in the job. He needs a boost from this process as he faces re-election amid low popularity ratings and political scandals later this month. Like Blair, he has committed a lot of personal energy to the issue. Unlike previous Irish leaders he remains welcome in Belfast. When then Taoiseach Sean Lemass drove to Stormont in the Winter of 1965, Ian Paisley threw snowballs at the car.

But despite Blair and Ahern’s best efforts it has been a bumpy ten year ride to get to yesterday’s swearing in. In the first post Good Friday election to the power-sharing assembly, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, was elected First Minister-designate. The assembly met in so-called “shadow” mode in July 1998. The Omagh bombing slowed momentum but the assembly eventually met for real in December 1999.

But it was suspended two months later as Ian Paisley threw more snowballs. This time the Unionists were protesting the IRA was not disarming. After another three months, the IRA agreed to put their weapons “out of commission” and an uneasy power was restored. A second election occurred in July 2001. The surprise here was a change of power on the Nationalist side. Sinn Fein was the clear winner deposing the more moderate Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). Meanwhile the row over IRA weapons rumbled on and Assembly leader David Trimble resigned in protest.

In October 2002, police acting on a tip-off raided Sinn Fein’s Stormont offices to investigate an alleged IRA spy ring. Sinn Fein rejected the accusations but Britain immediately suspended the assembly. Another election took place in November 2003 and again there was a ground shift, this time on the Loyalist side. Trimble suffered a humiliating defeat and Paisley’s extremist DUP were established as the largest party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein maintained their hold on the Nationalist side.

With hardliners winning the vote on both sides of the divide, talks stalled all through 2004. In April 2005, Catholic man Robert McCartney was killed after a barroom brawl. His family accused the IRA of the killing, thus breaking a longstanding code of omerta on the Nationalist side. The political fallout was massive, with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams publicly repudiating IRA hardliners. Within three months the IRA announced they would pursue their goals through purely peaceful means. The ceasefire watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission confirmed the IRA had finally decommissioned their weapons and the parties were ready to compromise again.

And it is a very unusual compromise. The 108 seat Assembly is a strange parliament because it forms a mandatory coalition that involves 90% of the parties. Ministerial seats were allocated using the D’Hondt Method stipulated by the Good Friday Agreement. Named for a Belgian mathematician, it is a highest averages method for allocating seats according to proportional representation and is aimed at ensuring cross-community representation. The method’s downside is that it favours larger parties.

The government positions were filled based on how many seats each party holds. The Protestant DUP (with 30% of the vote) took up five posts while the Catholic Sinn Fein (26%) took up four. The Protestant Ulster Unionists (15%) took two positions and the Catholic SDLP (also 15%) took one.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 gave the new assembly some powers, kept others for Westminster and reserved a third set of powers for transfer at a later date. The assembly's initial powers include education, health and education. Powers that will stay in Westminster’s hands include matters of national importance including defence, taxation and foreign policy. The third “reserved” set include the thorny matters of police and criminal law which could be transferred to Belfast at a later date.

The challenges ahead are many not least the matter of sworn enemies agreeing to compromises. Sinn Fein’s sworn commitment to a 32 country united Ireland will be sorely tested. Paisley’s long standing bitter enmity to Sinn Fein as the mouthpiece of the IRA will also put pressure on the relationship. But Northern Ireland may well have set the template for defusing wars: take the extremists in from the cold, give them electoral clout and then tell them to make it work.

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